Balance

1 Comment

Today I am troubled – but not for the reasons I am about to describe.

Three days ago I took a tour of the West Bank near the Jerusalem area, looking at the Jewish settlements that are basically suburbs of the city. Much of what I saw was quite unpleasant – Palestinian towns completely encircled by the 25 foot high concrete Separation Wall with only one or two roads for exits (which can be closed at will by Israel, imprisoning the towns), large swaths of village land being taken over for future settlement construction, etc. I also made a second visit to the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem to take another look at how the government is collaborating with far-right ideologically driven NGOs to remove the Palestinians who live there.

But that is not why I am writing this post nor why I am troubled today. The tour I went on was with a private company that runs trips to the West Bank. Their purpose is to provide an alternative to the regular tours most visitors take that highlight the accomplishments of Israel – much of that well deserved – or to explore Jewish or Christian history and texts (religious Christians are the majority of tourists visiting Israel nowadays.). But since those traditional tours almost always lack balance, especially given what is happening politically in Israel, I thought this tour company could have an interesting perspective.

What I encountered instead was a disturbing selective use of facts, an undercurrent to delegitimize Israel, and an assertion that it is impossible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic (the complexity of this duality is widely discussed in Israel). Israel was always cast in the worst possible light with little nuance or consideration for other perspectives.

I responded instinctively and strongly. I rose to the defense of Israel when speaking to our guide who struck me as negative in the extreme. Later that night I wrote an indignant column to post on this blog and was about to click “publish” but I hesitated. Something held me back.

The next day I began thinking how the guide had discussed the demolition of Palestinian homes and businesses by the Israeli authorities. As background, the vast majority of these demolitions occur for administrative reasons, i.e., structures built without building permits. It is extremely difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank or East Jerusalem to obtain building permits to repair or expand their homes and businesses, or to build new structures. On average, only 5% of applications are approved. This means that, due to normal population growth, there is a shortage of housing that can be alleviated only through emigration or illegal construction. Existing businesses cannot legally expand or even renovate their existing property. Even Palestinian farmers need authorization to improve their farms or repair the damage done by erosion to the terraces upon which they grow their crops. One farmer had his terraces bulldozed when he did so without the elusive permit (see http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/amira-hass-palestinian-farmers-are-being-treated-like-criminals-1.261871). When the Israeli authorities demolish structures, it is a total financial loss plus the victims are often charged a fine to cover the cost of the demolition.

In the first 10 months of this year, 486 structures were demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 171 houses that displaced almost 900 people. Since 1967, over 24,000 structures have been demolished.  The demolition trends are increasing with more structures bulldozed this year than in recent years.

To get a feel for what home demolitions are like, you can quickly view the short videos in this link but most importantly read the text to get a fuller picture: http://rhr.org.il/eng/index.php/2011/12/watch-bulldozers-demolish-palestinian/#.TuXdSxLEZs8.twitter. As this link describes, one particularly harsh aspect is that adequate notice is seldom given. How does one clear out an entire home of one’s belongings when you don’t know when it will be destroyed? What if you are not home when the bulldozer and police show up at the door?

So now I put myself in the shoes of my tour guide who knew of these demolitions and their aftereffects (homelessness, bankruptcy, the emotional effects on one’s children, etc.), keeping in mind these demolitions occurred and still occur within a context of a range of other abuses, humiliations and physical violence that are endemic to the occupation on the West Bank – and unrelated to preventing terrorism. What would my perspective be if I had witnessed all this for the past decade? Would I still have faith in the Israeli system of government, especially because these policies occurred under all governments, no matter which party was in power?

I share my tour guide’s anguish but, after much consideration, I think he has reached the wrong conclusions. He presented Israel in a light I thought was incorrect – a wholesale condemnation – without any room to take into account the many positive and progressive sides of the country.

Israel is a strong democracy with a plethora of political parties and NGOs of every stripe including an active network of organizations staffed by dedicated Israelis who are fighting to oppose the occupation, support democratic ideals and guarantee civil rights for all segments of society. It is precisely because of the robustness of this democracy that so much information is available about the complex and troubling aspects of the political situation here and that there is so much participation by citizens in the process.

For example, last summer there were massive demonstrations by mainstream Israelis protesting economic policies that mirrored the Occupy Wall Street protests in the USA but were significantly larger even though Israel’s population is 2% that of the U.S. Just this week, 10,000 people rallied on short notice in the town of Beit Shemesh to support women’s rights being restricted by the ultra-Orthodox. Democracies with this type of citizen involvement and such strong civil institutions tend to have the ability to correct imbalances over time, especially as people become more aware.

This is one reason I’m writing this blog. I hope to be able to provide a balanced view – but the press of news developments and the current government’s actions inevitably will lead to more space being devoted to the less positive. My goal is to enable us to better understand what has been happening here for decades, unbeknownst to most of us in its full detail, because Americans, and the American Jewish community in particular, can influence Israeli policy.

I am gratified that this past week so many people have chosen to sign up to receive notices of new blog posts via email or Twitter. I appreciate that and trust you will understand if what I write about seems at times too skewed in one direction.

Best wishes for a peaceful and good new year.

Advertisements

5,000 feet up

1 Comment

Recently two articles were brought to my attention that offer a bird’s eye view of what has been happening in Israel.  Although coming from very different perspectives, I think you’ll find these of interest – see links below – because they address  trends and developments that will affect what Israel might be like in the future.

The first is an interview with Rabbi David Hartman, the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Rabbi Hartman made aliyah 40 years ago from America because, as he says in the interview, ““That’s what I thought I would see in Israel–a living Judaism that was gentle, sensitive, moral, loving. From the moment that I moved here, I fought for it to be that way. That’s why I built the institute, as a place open to religious and secular, Jews and Arabs.” The interview is an anguished cry from a leading religious scholar about what has happened to Judaism and Israel; where did they lose their way religiously and morally?

In the past few days I have had several conversations that tried to understand how coveting the land seems to have become the central obsession of the Jewish state. How did stones and dirt become more important than how we treat other human beings? How did very religious Jews seem to become more concerned with the minutia of observance versus the ultimate spiritual purpose of that observance? Although I was unable to formulate adequate answers to these questions, Rabbi Hartman attempts to address these very issues in the interview. See http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4159477,00.html

The second article is an opinion piece in last week’s Haaretz newspaper written by Ari Shavit, a centrist columnist who in the past was generally sympathetic towards Netanyahu. He is very concerned about the concerted attacks on democratic principles and civil rights in Israel and how that might transform the country into something unrecognizable. As he writes in this column, “Time after time there have been assaults by the secular right and the religious right on the principles of liberalism and on liberal institutions, but there has never been an all-out, multi-pronged and multi-dimensional attack on the core values of the Jewish democratic state.” It is notable that someone like Shavit is publishing this type of piece.

I expect in future posts on this blog that I will provide details on specific issues such as attempts to limit freedom of the press or restrictions on funding for human rights organizations. But Shavit in this column presents a broader picture. See http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-has-never-been-so-ugly-1.401501

Lest you think Israel is alone in this assault on democratic values, far-right and even fascist parties are becoming stronger in many European countries. Hungary is the canary in the coal mine where a veto-proof, two-thirds majority of right wing parties in the parliament has re-written the constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and gerrymandered election districts to ensure their continued power. This doesn’t make the Israeli situation any better but perhaps does provide some context.

Café Life

3 Comments

Last night at 10:00 o’clock I went out for a walk in the city and headed over to Bograshov Street (pronounced by the locals as “Boograshov”, named after a leading educator in early Tel Aviv who changed his name to “Bogar” later in life to protest the naming of the street in his honor). Now, Bograshov is not a major thoroughfare, just a two lane street not far from the beach that is lined with shopping.  But it is a major hub of activity because within three short blocks it has six regular cafes plus one humus café, two ice cream cafes, and three bakery cafes – twelve in all, covering an enchanting variety of tastes: delicious salads, French pastries, oversized sandwiches, and humus so rich it bears no relation to what one gets in America.

Those familiar with me know that I can wax poetic about food so Tel Aviv is like Eden for me. But what makes Bograshov Street so interesting is that it isn’t unique. One can find many other concentrations of cafes all over the city plus individual cafes tucked away into the corners of small, tree-lined side streets. They are everywhere!

Yet what really interests me are the people in these cafes. The tables are filled with a few locals peering at their laptops, some couples whispering to each other, but often small groups of friends schmoozing and laughing while they sip their tea in glass cups and cappuccinos in ceramic mugs with cinnamon drizzled on top in intricate designs.

Tonight is a weeknight yet many of the cafe chairs are filled on Bograshov.  It’s late so patrons are talking quietly, gathered around the small round tables with little flickering candles. It doesn’t matter that it’s a workday tomorrow. They are out with their friends. And its not just young people. There are some middle aged folks out too. Some call this the Tel Aviv café culture, a social phenomenon that defines the city.

But there is something else going on here (besides the great food and coffee). We have a friend who lives in Haifa, born and bred there. When she comes to visit us in Tel Aviv and we take a walk along the beach promenade, she inevitably runs into friends she hasn’t seen in 20 years, 10 years, or maybe not since last week. She seems to know everyone. But then I have to realize this is still a small country. Everyone knows someone who knows someone famous. There probably is only three, maybe four, degrees of separation. People still regularly see their close friends from high school, and Friday night dinner with family is de rigueur.

Unlike America, where friends and family scatter to the wind and early connections become tenuous at best, there is only so far one can move in Israel.  The geographic footprint is small. So these formative relationships remain strong in an intricate web of connections that is reinforced by this very sociable culture.

What’s the result? Well, sociologists have probably written reams about this but one thing that strikes me is the effect on today’s politics in Israel. When disasters strike in America, we see it on the news but few of us feel it personally. How many of us were in close contact with people affected by Katrina in New Orleans or by the Northridge earthquake in California in the ‘90s? How many of us know someone killed or injured in Iraq? But when the rockets fly over the border from Lebanon or Gaza Israelis know someone close who is affected. Everyone has someone who was killed or maimed in a war or a terrorist attack – or who narrowly missed a suicide bomber or an explosive device. Israelis know that with tens of thousands of rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal aimed at Israel the next war will affect them personally. Or they will lose more people they know if another wave of terror starts.

When you dig deep into the Israeli psyche, I think you find fear, fear for themselves and fear for the family and friends they love in their large and close social networks. And they vote that fear.

So when I see groups of Israelis laughing and schmoozing at their café tables along the sidewalks I realize that deep down they know how tenuous this might be, how it can all be gone in an instant. This simply is not part of the reality of European or American citizens. It’s a paradigm gap in the way life is perceived.

This Israeli perception certainly results in the leaders they choose and the policies they pursue – and is an unbridgeable chasm that has been at the root of the failed and tortured negotiations for peace with the Palestinians. By no means is this the whole story but it is one of the factors that makes this situation so difficult.

Of course, much of this applies to the Palestinians as well – who in addition bring their own set of unique issues to the table – which makes it all even more complicated.

A Short Trip to the West Bank, Part 2

Leave a comment

Our second stop of the day dealt with the proposed forced resettlement of 30,000 Bedouin in the West Bank. The first group of over 2,000 people who are scheduled to be displaced live near Ma’ale Adumim, the third largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank that is situated just outside Jerusalem. We visited the edge of the huge Jerusalem garbage dump which is where this group of Bedouin will be forced to move.

The trash repository is an open air dump. There was a constant stream of large garbage trucks rumbling by on the road kicking up huge amounts of dust. Down the hill from where we stood, we saw the trucks dumping their loads, bulldozers moving the trash, and dust swirling in the wind. It was noisy, ugly and foul smelling. There is no open space with vegetation nearby for the Bedouin to graze their flocks, which is their livelihood.

If the Bedouin resist moving, the strategy will be to have bulldozers level their settlements. If they rebuild, the bulldozers come again. Eventually they get the message.

The reason this group of 2,000 is being moved is settlement expansion. In this particular case, many of these Bedouin live on land slated for the expansion of Ma’ale Adumim. This is a major construction project on the final piece of open land that connects Palestinian East Jerusalem with the West Bank. Once this expansion occurs, East Jerusalem will be completely cut off from the rest of the Palestinian Authority, severing what was once a vibrant economic corridor that sustained East Jerusalem and making it impossible for East Jerusalem to be the capital or even part of a future Palestinian state. The access road has already been built for this settlement expansion, utilities such as water are already in place, and a large police station has been constructed. They are just waiting for the bulldozers — which have been delayed due to American objections.

In addition, the road used by Palestinians that connects the southern and northern parts of the West Bank goes right through this land. Thus, when the construction is completed, the West Bank will effectively be cut into two non-contiguous cantonments, one in the north and one in the south.

With the large population that is planned for this new settlement area, the impact of this expansion on East Jerusalem and the West Bank will be difficult if not impossible to undo in any future peace agreement. Of course, this will dramatically increase the barriers to successful future negotiations.

A Short Trip to the West Bank, Part 1

2 Comments

Shortly after I arrived in Tel Aviv two weeks ago I was invited to take a drive to the West Bank with the staff from the B’tselem USA office who were in Israel for a week of meetings and updates. They were going to see a few sites of interest and had an extra seat in their car. So I hopped on the bus to Jerusalem where I joined them.

As background, B’tselem (www.btselem.org) is an Israeli organization that is concerned with human rights in the West Bank. They report on what is happening “under the radar” in the occupied territories by issuing carefully researched reports that document abuses or illegal activity. What I saw during this brief trip has rarely been covered in the media.

Our first stop was the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja which is under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality. Years ago a significant portion of the village’s agricultural land was expropriated, without compensation, by Israel to build the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo and Har Gilo. The mechanism to do this was to declare the fields military land after which the neighborhoods were constructed. The result was a serious blow to the economy of the village since it was agriculturally based. The farmers affected lost their livelihood with no legal recourse.

Today the separation wall is being built around the village. Its path is between the village’s remaining agricultural land and the houses. This will effectively deny the farmers entry to any of their land although they will be able to apply for temporary three month access permits. However, those often are not granted or renewed and experience in other Palestinian villages has been that, even when temporary permits are issued, soldiers don’t always show up to open the gates through the wall. Obviously farmers cannot take the chance of planting and investing in their fields without assurances of ready access. Thus the wall will effectively deprive the village of its remaining economic viability. In addition, once the land is not worked for three years it is declared “abandoned” and the state can legally expropriate it without compensation (Arbitrarily denying access for security or other reasons for three years is one of the favorite legal mechanism’s to take over private Palestinian land).

In the meantime, the contrast between the Arab village and the nearby Jewish neighborhoods is striking. The roads in the village are old and rutted, there are few if any government services provided, and building permits are almost impossible to obtain so, even if there were funds available, improvements or new construction could not be made legally. As a B’tselem report stated, “Over the years, the Jerusalem Municipality has not provided services to the village, and city officials’ visits to the village have primarily been to document houses built without a permit or to demolish them.” In comparison, the roads for settlers are modern and well maintained, and Gilo and Har Gilo are attractive neighborhoods with parks, playgrounds, shopping, and modern buildings.

A telling symbol is the new separation wall itself. On the side facing the Jewish neighborhoods the wall is covered with a pretty facade of Jerusalem stone. On the Palestinian side it is ugly, grey concrete.

Unfortunately, the experience of Al-Walaja is not uncommon on the West Bank but it is seldom reported in its full magnitude and long-term impact.

%d bloggers like this: